It's virtually impossible to fully prepare someone to become a foster parent. It's too nuanced and complex of an issue to prescribe a certain formula to it. This doesn't mean parents shouldn't be properly trained and prepared; it just means that while certain things are universally true and can be anticipated, most things are not when it comes to the messy and hard and raw of real peoples lives. You simply can't script it; you can only live it - discover it - a little bit at a time.
I've found that foster care has the unique ability to be everything you hoped it would be and nothing you thought it would all at the same time. Expectations simultaneously go exceeded and unmet. It affirms things you knew were true, challenges things you thought were true and teaches you things you didn't even know needed to be true. It's an incubator of learning and struggling and questioning and growing.
I didn't really know what to expect going into foster parenting, but in many regards it's not what I thought it would be and is so much more than I hoped it would be. Here's five ways, among many others, foster care has surprised me:
1) It's Equal Parts Beauty and Brokenness
Everything about foster care is somehow equal parts beauty and brokenness. Everything. Very quickly the excitement of having a child placed in your home is tempered by the tragedy that has led them there. We know it's a good thing they are with us, but somehow an equally bad thing they need to be. Even the victories sometimes feel like tragedies, because none of this should be happening in the first place. This is the deep, soul-wrenching tension of foster care, bearing too much brokenness to be ignored and too much beauty to be hidden.
2) It's the Call to Give First, Last and Always
Foster care is less about getting a child for your family and more about giving your family for a child. That's not to say a family can't grow through foster care - it sometimes does - or that a family doesn't receive much through foster care - it no doubt can. It is to say, however, that our first call is to give, not receive - to open ourselves up fully, embrace the implications freely and crucify our expectations completely.
3) It's More Spiritual Than Physical
We are not merely participating in broken human stories but in fractured spiritual ones as well. No longer silent spectators, we are now active participants in the tension of an unseen battle in which the enemy is not birth parents or broken systems, but in the grand unseen spiritual world of things, is Satan who wants to steal, kill and destroy that which is good. (John 10:10) You can feel it through and through. The tension of the unseen battle is thick. Foster care is spiritual warfare.
4) It's About More Than Just a Child
Foster care is just as much about pulling a child out of a broken story as it is about being pulled into one. It's about humanizing those we are often quick to demonize, embracing those we are often quick to turn from and seeing a side of humanity that although vastly different in experience from ours is no less ours to own. It's about loving kids from hard places and even - sometimes especially - stepping into hard places in order to love those that have created them.
5) It's Not "Us" Helping "Them", It's Just "Us"
No one is strutting their way through foster care; we're all limping in some way - certainly the kids, their families, case workers, the "system" and even (sometimes especially) us. At some point we come to the realization that it's not so much "us" helping "them" - it's just "us", together - all uniquely broken humans, wired for struggle, worthy of grace and in this thing called life together.
I don't really know what my expectations going into foster care were, and perhaps you can't really articulate what yours were either. It's hard, knowing what we now know, to look back and even try to put words to what we thought we knew then. It's everything and nothing we ever thought it would be. But what I do know now with certainty is this - I've been surprised - in some of the hardest, most beautiful, gut-wrenching and soul-stirring ways. Maybe you have been too.